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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                        207
vard. The trams clanged merrily, and merry was the
laughter of the children who. though pale and thin, were
busily burrowing in the warm, dry sand at the foot of the
monument. Farther down the boulevard, behind a rope
barrier, and guarded by two rosy-cheeked girls in smart
military tunics, could be seen the silvery, cigar-shaped
body of a barrage balloon, and this implement of war
looked to Meresyev not like a night-watchman of the
Moscow sky, but like a large, good-natured animal that
had escaped from the Zoo and was now dozing in the cool
shade of the trees.
Meresyev shut his eyes and turned his smiling face up
to the sun.
At first, the children paid no attention to the airman.
They reminded him of the sparrows on the windowsill of
ward forty-two, and amidst the sound of their twittering
he absorbed with his whole body the warmth of the sun
and the noise of the street. But one little fellow, running
away from his playmates, tripped over Alexefs
outstretched feet and went sprawling in the sand.
For an instant, the little fellow's face was contorted by
a tearful grimace, then it assumed an expression of per-
plexity, which gave way to a look of horror. The child
cried out in fear and scampered off. The entire flock of
children gathered around him and for some time chirped
and twittered with alarm, casting sidelong glances at
the airman. Then they slowly and furtively drew near
Absorbed in his reflections, Alexei noticed nothing. He
opened his eyes and saw the children gazing at him in
surprise and fear, and only then did he become conscious
of what they were saying.
a You're fibbing, Vitamin! He's a real airman. A senior
lieutenant," gravely observed a pale, thin lad of about
uTm not fibbing!" protested Vitamin. "May I drop down
dead! Honestly, they're wooden! Not real, but wooden, I
tell you!"
Meresyev felt a stab at the heart, and at once the
brightness of the day was dimmed for him. He raised
his eyes, and at his glance the children backed away from
him, still gazing at his feet.